A Memory Called Empire

by Arkady Martine

Cover image

Series: Teixcalaan #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2019
ISBN: 1-250-18645-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 462

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Mahit Dzmare grew up dreaming of Teixcalaan. She learned its language, read its stories, and even ventured some of her own poetry, in love with the partial and censored glimpses of its culture that were visible outside of the empire. From her home in Lsel Station, an independent mining station, Teixcalaan was a vast, lurking weight of history, drama, and military force. She dreamed of going there in person. She did not expect to be rushed to Teixcalaan as the new ambassador from Lsel Station, bearing a woefully out-of-date imago that she's barely begun to integrate, with no word from the previous ambassador and no indication of why Teixcalaan has suddenly demanded a replacement.

Lsel is small, precarious, and tightly managed, a station without a planet and with only the resources that it can maintain and mine for itself, but it does have a valuable secret. It cannot afford to lose vital skills to accident or age, and therefore has mastered the technology of recording people's personalities, memories, and skills using a device called an imago. The imago can then be implanted in the brain of another, giving them at first a companion in the back of their mind and, with time, a unification that grants them inherited skills and memory. Valuable expertise in piloting, mining, and every other field of importance need not be lost to death, but can be preserved through carefully tended imago lines and passed on to others who test as compatible.

Mahit has the imago of the previous ambassador to Teixcalaan, but it's a copy from five years after his appointment, and he was the first of his line. Yskandr Aghavn served another fifteen years before the loss of contact and Teixcalaan's emergency summons, never returning home to deposit another copy. Worse, the implantation had to be rushed due to Teixcalaan's demand. Rather than the normal six months of careful integration under active psychiatric supervision, Mahit has had only a month with her new imago, spent on a Teixcalaan ship without any Lsel support.

With only that assistance from home, Mahit's job is to navigate the complex bureaucracy and rich culture of an all-consuming interstellar empire to prevent the ruthlessly expansionist Teixcalaanli from deciding to absorb Lsel Station like they have so many other stations, planets, and cultures before them. Oh, and determine what happened to her predecessor, while keeping the imagos secret.

I love when my on-line circles light up with delight about a new novel, and it turns out to be just as good as everyone said it was.

A Memory Called Empire is a fascinating, twisty, complex political drama set primarily in the City at the heart of an empire, a city filled with people, computer-controlled services, factions, manuevering, frighteningly unified city guards, automated defense mechanisms, unexpected allies, and untrustworthy offers. Martine weaves a culture that feels down to its bones like an empire at the height of its powers and confidence: glorious, sophisticated, deeply aware of its history, rich in poetry and convention, inward-looking, and alternately bemused by and contemptuous of anyone from outside what Teixcalaan defines as civilization, when Teixcalaan thinks of them at all.

But as good as the setting is (and it's superb, with a deep, lived-in feel), the strength of this book is its characters. Mahit was expecting to be the relatively insignificant ambassador of a small station, tasked with trade negotiations and routine approvals and given time to get her feet under her. But when it quickly becomes clear that Yskandr was involved in some complex machinations at the heart of the Teixcalaan government, she shows admirable skill for thinking on her feet, making fast decisions, and mixing thoughtful reserve and daring leaps of judgment.

Mahit is here alone from Lsel, but she's not without assistance. Teixcalaan has assigned her an asekreta, a cultural liaison who works for the Information Ministry. Her name is Three Seagrass, and she is the best part of this book. Mahit starts wisely suspicious of her, and Three Seagrass starts carefully and thoroughly professional. But as the complexities of Mahit's situation mount, she and Three Seagrass develop a complex and delightful friendship, one that slowly builds on cautious trust and crosses cultural boundaries without ignoring them. Three Seagrass's nearly-unflappable curiosity and guidance is a perfect complement to Mahit's reserve and calculated gambits, and then inverts beautifully later in the book when the politics Mahit uncovers start to shake Three Seagrass's sense of stability. Their friendship is the emotional heart of this story, full of delicate grace notes and never falling into stock patterns.

Martine also does some things with gender and sexuality that are remarkable in how smoothly they lie below the surface. Neither culture in this novel cares much about the gender configurations of sexual partnerships, which means A Memory Called Empire shares with Nicola Griffith novels an unmarked acceptance of same-sex relationships. It's also not eager to pair up characters or put romance at the center of the story, which I greatly appreciated. And I was delighted that the character who navigates hierarchy via emotional connection and tumbling into the beds of the politically influential is, for once, the man.

I am stunned that this is a first novel. Martine has masterful control over both the characters and plot, keeping me engrossed and fully engaged from the first chapter. Mahit's caution towards her possible allies and her discovery of the lay of the political land parallel the reader's discovery of the shape of the plot in a way that lets one absorb Teixcalaanli politics alongside her. Lsel is at the center of the story, but only as part of Teixcalaanli internal maneuvering. It is important to the empire but is not treated as significant or worthy of its own voice, which is a knife-sharp thrust of cultural characterization. And the shadow of Yskandr's prior actions is beautifully handled, leaving both the reader and Mahit wondering whether he was a brilliant strategic genius or in way over his head. Or perhaps both.

This is also a book about empire, colonization, and absorption, about what it's like to delight in the vastness of its culture and history while simultaneously fearful of drowning in it. I've never before read a book that captures the tension of being an ambassador to a larger and more powerful nation: the complex feelings of admiration and fear, and the need to both understand and respect and in some ways crave the culture while still holding oneself apart. Mahit is by turns isolated and accepted, and by turns craves acceptance and inclusion and is wary of it. It's a set of emotions that I rarely see in space opera.

This is one of the best science fiction novels I've read, one that I'll mention in the same breath as Ancillary Justice or Cyteen. It is a thoroughly satisfying story, one that lasted just as long as it should and left me feeling satiated, happy, and eager for the sequel. You will not regret reading this, and I expect to see it on a lot of award lists next year.

Followed by A Desolation Called Peace, which I've already pre-ordered.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-08-25

Last modified and spun 2019-08-30